Die Hard SEO: Search Marketing for Underdogs

by Andy Crestodina March 20th, 2012 

He was outnumbered and outgunned. They had the manpower and the resources. He didnt even have shoes. But on a summer night in 1988, John McClane triumphed over a group of terrorist criminals, using nothing but intelligence, attitude and sheer willpower.

In search marketing, we are all up against giants. This post is about doing more with less. Its about how to be the underdog and win. Its about being the Bruce Willis of search marketing.

Know what the competition is up to

John McClanes first priority was to figure out who he was up against. He checked the bad guys for IDs after he killed them, he stole a radio and listened in, he peered around corners and got to know the enemy.

This kind of competitive analysis is also your first step. Before you write a page - no, before you even build a site - look at who youre taking on. Search. Who is ranking high? Check OpenSiteExplorer.org. Do they have a powerful domain? High link popularity? A rocket launcher? If so, fine. At least now you know.

  • Dont play to their strengths. Dont start by targeting the main phrases of the major players. Its ineffective and discouraging.
  • Look for weaknesses. Be where they arent. Check Quora, Focus, LinkedIn, Google+, SlideShare, Friendster, anywhere.

But look out. Hans Gruber (played by Alan Rickman) was also good at analyzing the competition. He saw that family photo, put the pieces together and figured out who he was dealing with.

Make Connections

McClane knew that he couldn't do it alone. To succeed, he had to get the attention of the powers-that-be. He did everything he could to reach out and finally made one valuable connection, Sergeant Powell. Sure, it wasn't exactly who he was hoping to reach, but he made the most of it.

As an underdog search marketer, the right connections are critical. You need to get the attention of the authorities (or at least, websites with high domain authority). This might be a powerful blog or a major publication. Here are two underdog tactics that work:

  • Use dramatic means if necessary: take a strong position on a topic and write on it.
  • Use persistence when necessary: leave thoughtful comments on their posts, retweet their content, and slowly but surely, you'll get their attention.

SEO is fundamentally about connections. Even action heroes need buddies.

Don't waste your resources

Remember Deputy Chief of Police Dwayne Robinson? The one who sent the SWAT team charging into the Nakatomi building? He just picked his target and sent in the troops. People died. Not a good use of resources.

Advertising is often like that. Sending in the troops and hoping for the best. You need a big budget, and its trial and error. Although more trackable, pay-per-click marketing (PPC) is often like this. Its fine for people who don't have the endurance and skill for SEO.

As an underdog marketer, you cant afford to advertise and you wouldn't want to anyway. You've got more brains than budget, so stick to content marketing. In the end, McClane did a lot more good than Deputy Chief Robinson.

Go where they wont go

It takes guts to climb down elevator shafts and crawl through the air ducts. These are small spaces that any sane person would avoid. But you'll go there. This is Die Hard SEO.

Dig deep into your keyphrase research. That's where you find the phrases that they missed. This is how you sneak past them. Target more phrases; some may have lower search volume, but they might still be highly relevant.

Create pages for all these phrases, adding new sections to your site. This creates internal linking opportunities. And when you start winning little battles, move up to bigger battles.

Never Give Up

Perseverance, obviously, is what its all about. McClane never gives up, and that's why he wins in the end.But Die Hard isn't a movie, its a franchise. Its all about the sequels. Did they stop after Die Hard grossed $83 million? Nope. They made three more movies and another $350 million. And they're not done yet.
Look for a new Die Hard next year. SEO is a marathon and a test of wills. So research the competition carefully. Target the keyphrases others wont. Keep making connections. Keep to your calendar for creating content. Relentlessly look for linking and PR opportunities.And never, never give up. That's Die Hard SEO.
Andy Crestodina

Andy Crestodina is the Strategic Director of Orbit Media, a web design company in Chicago. He's also the author of Content Chemistry, An Illustrated Guide to Content Marketing

Orbit Media's Blog

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8 Responses to “Die Hard SEO: Search Marketing for Underdogs”

  1. Andy says:

    Good research goes a long way and can save you a lot of time & work later. Unfortunately I had to find that out the hard way, but with today's tools it's getting easier and easier to size up your competition and find niches / keywords that are easy to rank for.

  2. My biggest takeaway in this great article is the last paragraph. All of the wonderful tips above it mean nothing if there is isn't perseverance. Too often people throw temporary effort at initiatives like SEO instead of sustained commitments.

    Also, greatest Holiday Movie ever made.

  3. I'm glad you caught that, Jonathan. SEO is a very long term strategy. Its evolutionary, not revolutionary. But in my experience, it beats every other form of web marketing in the long run.

    As they say, PPC is temporary, SEO is forever!

  4. Ahmad says:

    Totally loved the Die Hard references 😀 Great post and some great information thrown in as well! For me, the first point in the article is perhaps the most important of all – knowing your enemy (or competition, in this case), is essential.

  5. Sanjeev says:

    The hardest thing is to keep the focus and walking towards the targets..Most people will end their quest in between..

  6. Thanks for the positive feedback, Ahmad. And yes, Sanjeev, I totally agree. SEO isn't for the impatient. John McClane didn't rush. He was careful to lay low at times and then when he made his move, he went big.

    I hope that everyone's SEO efforts have a big explosive Hollywood ending, but let's all keep in mind that it takes time, but the little guys often win in the end!

  7. Brilliant post. Die Hard was one of my all time great movies. Love the analogies you have used here. Thanks for sharing this.

  8. Fred says:

    Haha! Fun and alternative angle to SEO. Good points as well.